Valor: Veterans Day, 1967

Dec. 1, 1991

In air warfare, the latest technology is not always the best–at least for such specialized tasks as counter-insurgency and special operations, in which the Air Force first became deeply involved during the Vietnam War. Needed for those missions was a maneuverable aircraft with plenty of unrefueled time-on-target, persuasive firepower, a large diversified ordnance load, and the ability to survive heavy battle damage. These were found in the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, developed for the Navy toward the end of World War II. The A-1s role quickly expanded to search-and-rescue (SAR) missions under the call sign “Sandy.”

Among the A-1 pilots were many older men with the experience and judgment gained from thousands of hours in the cockpit. One of them was 44-year-old Lt. Col. Ralph Hoggatt, who had been a B-24 pilot during World War II and a C-124 and C-133 aircraft commander and instructor. He was serving as a research psychologist when tapped for Southeast Asia duty in 1967. Before completing his tour at Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, he would fly 204 combat missions, half of them over North Vietnam, with the 602d Fighter Squadron (Commando), later designated the 602d Special Operations Squadron.

Colonel Hoggatt had been at Udorn for less than three months; had flown 74 missions, 43 over the north; and had earned a 13th “Well Done,” when, on Nov. 11, 1967 (appropriately, Veterans Day), he and his wingman, Maj. William Griffith, were scrambled on a SAR mission. An F-4C crew was down near Mu Gia Pass, some 180 miles east of Udorn. The A-1Es, two to cover the HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopters and two for fire suppression with Hoggatt as on-scene commander, made voice contact with one survivor at 7:30 a.m. in a heavily defended enemy staging area.

Ralph Hoggatt led the rescue force down through a hole in the ragged 500-foot ceiling. He told the Jolly Greens to hold in a relatively safe area while he located the survivor and suppressed enemy fire with his four 20-mm cannon. Major Griffith circled above to spot enemy gun positions. Almost immediately, his aircraft was hit and burst into flames.

When Colonel Hoggatt saw his wingman’s parachute, he temporarily suspended his search for the F-4 pilot and attacked guns surrounding Griffith, whose parachute was caught in a tree 30 feet above the ground. Arriving jet fighters could give only intermittent support through breaks in the overcast. It was essentially one A-1E against many AA guns, automatic weapons, and small arms.

When enemy fire diminished, Colonel Hoggatt called in a Jolly Green, which was driven off by 37-mm guns. On a second try, with Hoggatt’s supporting fire, the HH-3 lowered Airman Roy Taylor on a forest penetrator. It took Taylor several minutes to cut Griffith free while the Jolly Green hovered 100 feet above, a fat target for the guns below. Finally both men were hauled aboard the damaged helicopter, and Hoggatt helped cover their successful withdrawal.

Colonel Hoggatt’s A-1 had taken many hits. There was no telling how long it would hold together. Nevertheless, as the Jolly Greens disappeared to the west, he turned back to continue searching for the F-4 survivor. More A-1Es were on the way to join him, and if he remained in the area he could show them the general location of the downed pilot and of the enemy guns. Hoggatt stayed with the SAR force until low fuel forced his return to base. The search continued throughout the day, but the F-4 crew was never rescued.

Ralph Hoggatt approached Udorn with only a few minutes worth of fuel remaining. There were gaping holes in his aircraft’s engine cowling, wings, underbelly, and upper fuselage, which was streaked with oil and hydraulic fluid. He was unable to lower his landing gear and had to sweat out those last few gallons of fuel while the runway was being foamed for his first-ever crash landing. Miraculously, as he rounded out for touchdown, his landing gear dropped into place.

Lt. Col. Ralph Hoggatt, now a retired colonel living in San Antonio, Texas, was awarded the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism that day when, for nearly an hour, he almost single-handedly faced overwhelming odds in one of the hottest areas of Southeast Asia. There were many more SAR missions before he returned to the States, but none more memorable than that one on Veterans Day, 1967. Colonel Hoggatt’s heroism brought honor to himself and kept faith with those before him who had forged the Air Force tradition of valor.

Published December 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.